A Canal Navvy
Before the introduction of cheap railway travel in the middle of the
nineteenth century it was unusual for people to move around the country.
Consequently, all those coming to live in a place where they were unknown were
treated with suspicion. Men working on the construction of canals, who often
came from distant places, also had problems with local people. When the Leeds
& Liverpool Canal was being built, the canal committee minutes for January
The labourers for cutting the canal are much imposed on by extravagant
charges of the inn keepers. The committee are desired to consider if any scheme
can be come into for the convenience of such labourers by erecting tents,
booths etc. and providing them with meat and drink at a more easy expense.
Three of the committee members were asked to look into the problem and
they purchased a house for the accommodation of the canal diggers.
Twenty five years later the problem continued. In December 1796 there
were 297 men employed on building the canal. The following February this had
risen to 468 and then to 518 in March. Such factors as weather and harvest time
affected the numbers of men available for work on building the canal. Those
working on the canal were a mixture of locals and professional navvies, many of
the latter being Scotsmen who had previously worked with Robert Whitworth, the
canal’s engineer, on the Forth & Clyde Canal.
The locals were very antagonistic to the Scotsmen and this resulted in a
riot which was reported thus in the canal company’s minutes:-
1792 Dec 4.
It having been reported that on Monday seven night a riot of a very
serious nature happened amongst the workmen employed upon the canal at Marsden
and Barrowford and many of them most violently assaulted and wounded and that
in the discovery of the offenders and bringing them to justice Captain Clayton
one of his Majesty's Justices of the Peace had taken an active part.
Resolved unanimously that the thanks of this meeting be given to Captain
Clayton and that Major Clayton be requested to transmit the same.
Ordered that the prosecution of the offenders concerned in the above
riot be carried on at the company's expence.
Ordered that the advertisement prepared by Mr.Hardy and now read and
which was as follows…
Breaches of the Peace
Whereas most violent and outrageous riots assaults and other breaches of
the peace have been lately committed by several persons employed upon the Leeds
and Liverpool Canal in or near to Barrowford and which it is apprehended has
been countenanced and encouraged particularly against the North Britains
employed upon the said canal by persons resident near to the works of the said
Notice is hereby given that the proprietors of the said canal are
resolved to use their utmost endeavours to preserve the peace amongst and
procure protection for the workmen who are or shall be employed in the said
works and for that purpose will at their own expence prosecute the aggressor
and protect the injured of whatever county they may happen to be who have been
concerned in or injured by the above outrages or who hereafter shall be guilty
of or suffering by any riots assaults or other breaches of the peace which
shall be committed by or upon any such aforesaid workmen. Dec 1st 1792.
…be printed and 500 copies thereof distributed upon the works of the
Alexander MacKenzie was one of the navvies who followed Robert Whitworth
from Scotland. In 1793 he was staying at the Chapel Inn, Little Marsden. On 11th
March 1793 he married Mary Roberts, one of the landlord’s two daughters. Their
first son was born at the Inn and baptised at the Chapel. They returned to have
their subsequent children baptised as well. From their entries in the Register
of Colne Parish Church, it is possible to trace progress of the canal through
The family finally settled in Blackburn. By this time Alexander had
become a contractor, and he was responsible for several sections of the canal
built between 1801 and 1816 when he lived in Byrom Street, Blackburn. He went
on to work on other civil engineering projects around the country. On his death
in 1836, his eldest son, William, carried on the business. He eventually became
the Senior Partner in the firm of MacKenzie and Brassey who were England’s most
successful railway contractors. In the middle of the 19th century they were to
build many railways, both in England and abroad, the total value of the works
being £17 million, around £850 million at today's prices. In 1844, William
erected a memorial obelisk to his mother and father in the Independent Chapel,
in Chapel Street. William died seven years later leaving about £500,000.